St Gregory the Theologian: Incomprehensible Deity and the Glory of Theosis

In the winter of A.D. 380-381, St Gregory the Theologian, recently appointed Archbishop of Constantinople, delivered his famous Epiphany Homilies (Orations 38, 39, and 40) to the congregation of the Church of the Holy Apostles.1 Scholars debate whether the churches in Constantinople had at this time adopted the Latin custom of celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on December 25th. If they had, then Oration 38 was most likely preached on Christ­mas Day and Orations 39 and 40 preached on the vigil and day of the Epiphany; if not, then Oration 38 was likely delivered on January 4th. The Epiphany Orations, writes Christopher Beeley, contain Gregory’s “most comprehensive treatment of Christian theology and spiritu­ality.”2 Unlike the Five Theological Orations, delivered some six months earlier at the house church of the Anastasia and composed specifically to refute the heresies of Euno­mia­nism and Pneumatomachianism, the Epiphany Orations represent Gregory’s ordinary preaching of the gospel. His intent is to proclaim the Nicene faith in its fullness to a city long domina­ted by Neo-Arian theology. Of course, there is nothing ordinary about these remarkable homilies.

The focus of Oration 38 is the birth of Jesus Christ, yet this birth quickly leads the arch­bishop into a comprehensive proclamation of the story of the divine Savior who has accomplished the salvation of the world. He who is eternally begotten of the Father without a mother is born into the world apart from the agency of a father: “The motherless one becomes fatherless” (38.2). He who is Being has come into being, “that the one who has given us being might also grant us well-being; or rather, as we fell from well-being through evil, he might bring us back again to himself through incarnation” (38.3). The goal of the incarnation is the reconciliation, restoration, transfiguration of humanity within the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

After this announcement, St Gregory offers a brief reflection on the nature of God. As the Lord declared to Moses on Mt Sinai, he is “he who is”:

God always was and is and will be, or rather always “is,” for “was” and “will be” belong to our divided time and transitory nature; but he is always “he who is,” and he gave himself this name when he consulted with Moses on the mountain. For holding everything together in himself, he possesses being, neither beginning nor ending. He is like a kind of boundless and limitless sea of being, surpassing all thought and time and nature. He is only sketched by the mind, and this in a very indistinct and mediocre way, not from things pertaining to himself but from things around him. Impres­sions are gathered from here and there into one particular representation of the truth, which flees before it is grasped and escapes before it is understood. It illumines the directive faculty in us, when indeed we have been purified, and its appear­ance is like a swift bolt of lightning that does not remain. It seems to me that insofar as it is graspable, the divine draws [us] toward itself, for what is completely ungraspable is unhoped for and unsought. Yet one wonders at the ungraspable, and one desires more intensely the object of wonder, and being desired it purifies, and purifying it makes deiform, and with those who have become such he converses as with those close to him,—I speak with vehement boldness—God is united with gods, and he is thus known, perhaps as much as he already knows those who are known to him. (38.7)

While later Byzantine writers will speak of God as “beyond Being,” St Gregory is happy to identify deity as Being, though clearly transcending all created being. Met John Zizioulas follows St Gregory at this point:

The doctrine of God does indeed take us beyond the common nature of things, but this does not mean that we cannot use the concept of being when dealing with God. “Apophaticism” does not mean that we have surpassed the concept of being or gone beyond ontology. . . . The verb “to be” is not only permissible in discussion of God, but it applies most directly and uniquely to God, for God is “the one who truly is.” “Being” applies primarily to God, so theology is the true ontology. God is not beyond or above the concept of “being, but he is the genuine, the true, “being.”3

In his Theological Orations Gregory had announced that the divine essence is incompre­hensible and unknowable. He describes how he himself once attempted, like Moses, to ascend the holy mountain to comprehend God in his entirety; but his attempt ended in failure. He discovered that his mind could not grasp the transcendent nature of the Creator; he could not pierce the veil and enter the Holy of Holies. Sheltering behind the rock that is the incarnate Christ, he could only see the backside of God, the divine glory manifested in the works of his creation (28.3). Yet in that contemplative moment he does “see” God. On the one hand, Gregory denies that the essence of God can be comprehended and fully grasped; on the other, God does graciously give himself to be apprehended in his glory and majesty, however partially and imperfectly. If the Deity were totally ungraspable, we would and could not hope to enter into true communion with him and thus be deified. Perhaps we might put the matter this way: God communicates himself to man under the conditions of our finitude and alienation; but he communicates himself precisely as ineffable mystery, dazzling the mind and filling the heart with an unquenchable thirst to know the incompre­hen­sible deity more fully. St Gregory’s is a qualified apophati­cism: “For indeed on the mountain itself God appears to human beings, as he himself descends from his own height while leading us up from the lowliness below, that the Incomprehensible may be compre­hended at least in the measure possible and as far as is safe for mortal nature” (45.11).

That God cannot be perfectly grasped by the creaturely mind flows from the infinite nature of the divine being. “For the divine is without limits,” Gregory explains, “and difficult to contemplate, and this alone is entirely graspable in it, namely that it is without limits” (38.7). This recognition of the infinity of the divine being flows from Gregory’s contempla­tive experience of God and his philosophical reflection on the radical transcendence of the God who has made the world from out of nothing. To encounter God is to encounter the eternal Creator who surpasses all limits and who thus voids all attempts to define and master him. As corporeal beings, we live in time. If we look to the past, all we can say is that God is without beginning; if we look to the future, all we can say is that God is immor­tal; if we apprehend past and future simultaneously, all we can say is God is eternal. But this is just a species of negative abstraction. “For eternity is neither time nor some part of time, nor is it measurable, but what is time for us, measured by the movement of the sun, is for everlasting beings eternity, since it is coextensive with these beings, as if it were a kind of movement and interval of time” (38.8).

At this point Gregory recalls that this is a Christmas sermon, not a philosophical disquisi­tion. “Our concern here,” he declaims, “is not ‘theology’ [God as he is in himself] but ‘economy’ [God as self-revealed in the narrative of salvation and the works of creation]. When I say ‘God,’ I mean Father and Son and Holy Spirit” (38.9). St Gregory the Theologian is principally interested in the living Lord of the gospel, not the deity of the philosophers. I am reminded of Pascal’s famous memorial: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars.” Gregory is certainly capable of reflecting on the divinity of theologia, but his heart lies with the God of the economia, the God who has entered time and space to accomplish the salvation of humanity.

Gregory then begins to reflect on God’s original creation of humanity, a creature composed of spirit and matter, made in the divine image (which Gregory identifies with the rational mind), teleologically inclined to “see and experience the radiance of God” (38.11). The human being was placed in paradise and honored with the gift of self-determination—hence the purpose of the tree of knowledge: God did not forbid the fruit of this tree out of envy but only for the good of the human being, to be given to him at the proper time after he had grown in spiritual maturity. But the human being ignored the commandment, ate the fruit, and was banished from paradise. Man was clothed in the tunics of skin (“that is perhaps the more coarse and mortal and rebellious flesh” [38.12]) and for the first knew shame and alienation. Communion with God was broken. We were cut off from the tree of life. Death became a gift of sorts, in that it put a temporal limit on our iniquity and evil.

After trying various remedies to correct and heal the human condition and restore humanity to himself, God chose the most wondrous remedy of all. This profound passage deserves to be quoted in full:

It was the Word of God himself, the one who is before the ages, the invisible, the ungraspable, the incorporeal, the Principle from the Principle, the light from the light, the source of life and immortality, the imprint of the archety­pal beauty, the immutable seal, the undistorted image, the definition and explanation of the Father. He approaches his own image and bears flesh because of my flesh and mingles himself with a rational soul because of my soul, purifying like by like. And in all things he becomes a human being, except sin. He was conceived by the Virgin, who was purified beforehand in both soul and flesh by the Spirit, for it was necessary that procreation be honored and that virginity be honored more. He comes forth, God with what he has assumed, one from two opposites, flesh and spirit, the one deifying and the other deified. O new mixture! O the paradoxical blending! He who is comes into being, and the uncreated is created, and the uncontained is contained, through the intervention of the rational soul, which mediates between the divinity and the coarseness of flesh. The one who enriches becomes poor; he is made poor in my flesh, that I might be enriched through his divinity. The full one empties himself; for he empties himself of his own glory for a short time, that I may participate in his fullness. What is the wealth of his goodness? What is this mystery concerning me? I participated in the [divine] image, and I did not keep it; he participates in my flesh both to save the image and to make the flesh immortal. He shares with us a second communion, much more paradoxical than the first; then he gave us a share in what is superior, now he shares in what is inferior. This is more godlike than the first; this, to those who can understand, is more exalted. (38.13)

Humanity is destined for eternal communion with God, for theosis, yet because of the consequences of the Fall, fulfillment of this destiny has become impossible. The unexpected and miraculous solution is the Incarnation: the infinite Deity enters into the world he has made and becomes a human being. St Gregory speaks of this process as a self-emptying, a kenosis, not a putting aside of his divinity—how could he cease to be God?—but the humble acceptance of a life lived under the conditions of poverty, suffering, and death. The eternal Son personally appropriates a human mode of existence, thereby effecting its healing and re-opening the way to eternal life. One of St Gregory’s favorite ways of speaking of the Incarna­tion is that of mixture and blending. Divinity and flesh are united, blended in the one Christ, but this blending does not compromise the integrity of either the divine or human nature. It is, rather, a powerful way for Gregory to speak of the perichoretic unity of the divine and human in the one Jesus Christ. “The two are one thing through the blending,” the Theolo­gian declares (Ep 101.28). Gregory thus presents us with a powerful and dynamic narrative understanding of the Incarnation: the Son of God has become the Son of Man. This under­standing can only be expressed in the language of paradox: “I myself will proclaim the power of this day. The fleshless one takes flesh, the Word is made coarse, the invisible one is seen, the impalpable one is touched, the timeless one makes a beginning, the Son of God becomes Son of Man, ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and for the ages’ [Heb 13:8]” (38.2).

Beeley comments on Gregory’s use of the metaphor of blending to speak of the union of God and man in Jesus Christ:

The language of blending would later be condemned at Chalcedon, on the prompting of the Antiochenes, for seeming to compromise the transcen­dence of the Son’s divine nature. In Gregory’s usage, however, it helpfully conveys both the narrative movement of the incarnation and also the mysterious union between God and humanity in Jesus: first there was the eternal Son of God, and then he took on the full reality of a human being, mixing it with himself to make one incarnate Lord. In Gregory’s view, the real danger lies not in compromising the integrity of these two realities, as the Antiochenes would argue, but rather in the opposite direction: the blending should not be misunderstood as being anything less than a real union. If our humanity is not fully united to God in Christ, then he is in fact two different sons and we have not been divinized in the incarnation.4

Question: What does Gregory mean when he says that Christ’s rational mind mediates the union of divinity and humanity in Christ? Apparently Gregory borrowed this conception from Origen, from whom the the divine assumption of the human soul was the linchpin for the eternal Word’s union with the human body, given the dualistic separation between divinity and created matter.5 But given what I have read so far, Gregory does not appear to have shared Origen’s dualism.

St Gregory is well aware of how scandalous the Incarnation is to many of his hearers. It contradicts pre-conceived notions of impas­sible deity and ostensibly demeans the Crea­tor, perhaps even proving that Jesus cannot be considered homoousios with God the Fa­ther. Gregory’s response to all such accu­sa­tions is the miracle of incarnate grace: in love and compassion God searches out the one lost sheep; in love and compassion he eats with tax collectors and makes them his disciples; in love and compassion he girds himself and washes the feet of his friends; in love and compassion he suffers the agony of the cross. What is his profit in all of this? The salvation of sinners! Gregory does not hesi­tate, there­fore, to attribute to the divine Son the pas­sions of creaturely existence: “He was sent, but as human, for he was twofold. For he was tired and hungry and thirsty and endured agony and wept through the law of the body, but if he underwent these things also as God, what of it?” (38.15). Gregory was acquainted with the dualistic christologies of Diodore and other Antiochene theologians, who were keen to pro­tect impassible deity from corporeal engagement with the world; but he is persuaded that the salvation of humanity depends on God’s personal appropriation of fallen human nature and thus his experience of deprivation and suffering.

In his biography of the Nazianzen, Fr John McGuckin comments that “this movement of God’s compassion, however, must be consistently referred to the context of his economic salvation. It does not reveal theological verities per se.”6 McGuckin’s concern is that the long list of Christ’s creaturely limitations might be employed, as they evidently were so employed by the Neo-Arians, to deny his full divinity. “All the references to Christ being sent, or being subordinate, or suchlike,” he continues, “must be taken in reference to the human nature the Word of God adopted.”7 But I do not read Gregory as being particularly concerned in this homily about this problem. I am struck, rather, by his emphatic, albeit paradoxical, assertion of God’s physical involvement in the economy of salvation: God hungers, God thirsts, God suffers, God dies. Gregory’s proclamation of the gospel exhibits a strong unitive christology in the Alexandrian tradition. He willingly risks the censure of Eunomians and Antiochenes alike.

Christology and soteriology are interwined and inseparable in the thought of Gregory, and at the heart of both is theosis. The Nazianzen coined the term and made it the center of his theology. The Incarnate Son is the fulfillment of the divinization of human nature, as clearly stated in his Fourth Theological Oration:

He was actually subject as a slave to flesh, to birth, and to our human experiences; for our liberation, held captive as we are by sin, he was subject to all that he saved. What does the lowliness of Man possess higher than involvement with God, than being made God as a result of this intermin­gling, than being so “visited by the dayspring from on high” that “the holy thing which is born” has been called “Son of the most high” and that there has been “bestowed on it the name which is above every name”? What could that be but “God”? What of the “bowing of every knee” to the one who “was made empty on our account,” who blended the “divine image” with a “slave’s form”? What of the “acknowledgement by all the house of Israel that God made him both Lord and Christ”? (Or 30.3)

Beeley explains the decisive importance of theosis for Gregory:

For Gregory, the purpose and rationale of the incarnation is to bring about our divinization, which has been interrupted by the fall; and conversely, the basis of our divinization is the incarnation of Christ. Yet we are saved and divinized not merely as an extrinsic effect of the incarnation; the human Jesus is himself the first instance and the archetype of our divinization, the one in whose own theosis Christians participate and are thus saved. The determining factor in Gregory’s doctrine of salvation, then, and the key for understanding the work of Christ, is the identity of Christ—who Christ is in order to restore the divinization of humanity. This means that he does not separate the doctrine of Christ from the narrative story of his works of creation, salvation and consummation, since that narrative forms the basis for understanding Christ’s identity. Gregory’s Christology and his soteri­ol­ogy are thus inseparably involved with each other, and in a sense amount to the same thing.9

Our deification is our participation in the life, passion, death, and glorification of the Son of God. “I must be buried with Christ,” declares Gregory, “arise with Christ, be a joint heir with Christ, become a son of God, be called God himself!” (7.23).

Gregory concludes Oration 38 by inviting his hearers into the story of redemption. The birth of the Savior is not just something that happened hundreds of years ago. It is contempora­neous with us now in the festal celebration. Today we are in Bethlehem:

Now welcome for me his conception and leap for joy, if not indeed like John in the womb, then like David when the ark came to rest. Be awed at the census record through which you have been recorded in heaven, and revere the birth through which you have been released from the bonds of birth, and honor little Bethlehem, which has brought you back to paradise, and bow before the manger through which you who were without reason have been fed by the Word. Know, like the ox, your owner—Isaiah exhorts you—and like the donkey know your master’s crib, whether you are among those who are pure and under the law and chew the cud of the Word and are prepared for sacrifice, or whether up to now you are among the impure and unfit for food or sacrifice and belong to the Gentiles. Run after the star, and bring gifts with the magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a king and a God and one dead for your sake. With the shepherds give glory, with the angels sing hymns, with the archangels dance. Let there be a common celebration of the heavenly and earthly powers. (38.17)

The kerygmatic and liturgical incorporation of Gregory’s hearers into the narrative of the crucified and risen Christ is their conversion and sanctification, their theosis. No longer need they, need we, live by the Adamic story of despair, sin, violence, and death. A new future has been opened by the nativity of the Savior, a future into which we may now enter by baptism and faith. Here is the power of St Gregory the Theologians’s evangelical preaching.



[1] Contained in Festal Orations, trans. Nonna Verna Harrison.

[2] Christopher A. Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, p. 43.

[3] John Zizioulas, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, p. 55.

[4] Beeley, p. 131.

[5] See Christopher Beeley, The Unity of Christ, p. 34.

[6] John McGuckin, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography, p. 339.

[7] Ibid., p. 339.

[8] Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus, pp. 121-122.

(26 October 2012; rev.)

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3 Responses to St Gregory the Theologian: Incomprehensible Deity and the Glory of Theosis

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    This was my first substantial article that I wrote for this blog, and I wrote a goodly number of articles on St Gregory afterwards; but I have not revisited him for several years.


  2. Dee of St Hermans says:

    Sheltering behind the rock that is the incarnate Christ, he could only see the backside of God, the divine glory manifested in the works of his creation (28.3).

    Indeed the Incarnation of Christ (not just into “humanity” but into “all of God’s creation”) is intimately tied to soteriology. The Orthodox daily prayers usually begin with the Trisagion prayer that includes the words, “…Who is in all places and fills all things…”. This manifestation of God in His Creation is the starting point of God of bringing His creation, so to speak, into theosis, that is, bringing all of creation to Him. Creation is not left behind when humanity is brought to God. More could be said on this topic using St Maximus’ writings. (with which I’m more familiar)

    But I do not read Gregory as being particularly concerned in this homily about this problem. I am struck, rather, by his emphatic, albeit paradoxical, assertion of God’s physical involvement in the economy of salvation: God hungers, God thirsts, God suffers, God dies. Gregory’s proclamation of the gospel exhibits a strong unitive christology in the Alexandrian tradition. He willingly risks the censure of Eunomians and Antiochenes alike.

    I sincerely appreciate this interpretation to emphasize God’s physical involvement in the economy of salvation in St Gregory’s writing. Thank you for this essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dee of St Hermans says:

    PS I’m a physical scientist and such essays are food for my soul.


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